Information design:
in practice, an informed theory

InformForm is an international platform for information design, which celebrates and explores both practical and theoretical experimentation within the field of design. It prides itself on showcasing relevant examples of work by students, for students. Read More

inform #3 understanding signs and meaning

By InformForm

Information can be communicated verbally, textually and as well as through form. Exploration of form should be considered carefully—not everything can, or indeed should, be communicated visually. The decision for design needs to be informed and audience driven.

The design of a pictograph or pictographic system needs to have reasoning and intent. This requires not only knowledge and experience with content but also the language of signs. To understand the process of creating signs, the field of semiotics is an important point of reference.


We receive and send signs constantly and they play an important role in all forms of communication. It’s through the sign that we are lead to an understanding of the world around us, and assign and ascribe meaning to it.

signs can support
signs can supplement
signs can unit
signs can participate

Pictographic design is the process to assign meaning to form: the sign has become visual. The visual sign crosses language barriers where a written or a spoken sign cannot. The intention of the designer is to send messages and the intention of the audience is to understand this message correctly and garner meaning from it. Familiarity and previous learning play a role here, as well as visual issues around legibility—when an audience is capable of deciphering the sign—and readability—how easy is it to read. These considerations don’t belong to the area of typography and type design alone, and need attention.

The use of the word ‘pictogram’, ‘icon’, ‘symbol’ or ‘isotype’ are often used synonymously. This can cause confusion, as all are examples of visual signs, but with different functions and objectives. The below diagram clarifies some of these definitions.


Semiotics is a comprehensive field of study that is not only of use to designers: further reading* is recommended. In addition, refer to the technical glossary for guidelines on the development and constructions of visual signs. To keep things simple, from here onwards we have used the word ‘symbol’ to denote all different kinds of graphic symbols, pictorial, iconic or arbitrary as it’s the most inclusive term.

Originally published in Informform #2 2012

*Key texts:
This Means This, That Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics by Sean Hall;
Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts by David Crow;
Pictograms, Icons & Signs: A Guide to Information Graphics by Rayan Abdullah and Roger Hübner


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January 20, 2015
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